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The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning

By James E. Zull
Stylus Publishing
263 pages
ISBN: 1 57922 054 1
$24.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Cynthia Desrochers

CSU Northridge


The Art of Changing the Brain is not only a provocative title but also a unique definition of teaching. Written by James E. Zull, professor of biochemistry and biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and director of their University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, this book could transform the way we look at teaching and learning. Educational researchers have written numerous books on brain-based teaching; however, this is the first book on the topic written by a practicing scientist.

Zull's premise is that the brain's natural cycle of learning determines how we learn. Offered a myriad of amusing college classroom stories to illustrate the brain's workings (or lack thereof), the reader is thereby challenged to create learning situations that are compatible with how our brain learns.

Throughout the book, Zull describes the structure of the brain and how humans learn. He explains the three functions of the cerebral cortex that are involved with learning: sensing, integrating, and motor output (pp. 14-16). Synthesizing the process,

  1. The sensory brain takes in signals from the outside world through our eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose. These signals have no meaning at this point.
  2. When these sensory signals become integrated in the temporal (back) integrative cortex of the brain, we start making connections and patterns are developed, language and images become meaningful, and things start to make sense (pun intended).
  3. These meanings are then integrated as new, creative ideas, and hypotheses and plans-of-action are formed in the frontal integrative cortex.
  4. But it is in motor output, action, where our ideas are executed--we move. Speaking and writing are forms of motor output, as well as the more primitive forms, such as hunting food, seeking shelter, and escaping enemies.

Many of us are familiar with Kolb's learning cycle (1984). It has helped us to better understand the importance of active student learning in college classrooms. Zull (pp. 17-19) illustrates the parallelism between the brain's natural cycle of learning and Kolb's learning cycle. It is useful to see this congruence, as it gives the reader the biology that explains Kolb's cycle. In Kolb's learning cycle, learning originates in (a) concrete experiences [sensing], followed by (b) reflection [integrating back cortex], (c) developing abstractions [integrating front cortex], and (d) active testing of our abstractions [motor output]. We recognize that both cycles stress the importance of using all parts of the brain in order to promote significant learning, as well as our role as teachers in making this happen.

The first of three functions of the cerebral cortex is sensing, and we humans have survived because of our brain's ability to effectively attend to the appropriate stimuli when faced with a steady stream of competing sensory input bombarding us from all points in the environment. As our sense organs--the eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose--deliver signals from the outside world to the cerebral cortex, we have the ability to pay attention to important things while ignoring the rest. What's important? Zull states that all brains want to survive, and they do so by understanding their environment, controlling their own actions, avoiding danger, and searching for pleasure (p. 51).

In class, we want students to view our course as important and to pay attention. But we can't control students' action; no outside influence can cause a brain to learn. Teachers need to allow students to control their own learning--it's what the brain wants. Therefore, our first hurdle is to assure students that what we are asking them to learn matters in their lives and that our course-learning goals and objectives are important and purposeful to them.

An enormous amount of sensory input is coming at students from our university environment (e.g., teachers, other students, cell phones, food concessions, display booths, construction sites, honking cars, and blaring CDs). How often do we feel that students aren't playing attention in class? Fact is, they are paying attention, just not to us. There is a battle for attention, and some days we lose.

This book easily won my summer's days' attention. The Art of Changing the Brain is an enlightening book on the brain, teaching, and learning. Having personally read numerous books on this topic, this one captured my attention through real-life, humorous classroom stories, diagrams, and comprehensible explanations of complex brain workings, and transforming ideas about what I might do differently in the classroom to enhance student learning. I found it an easy, fun read. Zull shares illuminating ideas about our brain's biology as he progresses though the other two functions of the cerebral cortex, namely integrating and motor output. I will only scratch the surface here as I continue with this review by highlighting three conditions that the brain needs for learning: prior-knowledge connection, concretion, and whole-brain usage.

First, prior knowledge is the beginning of all new knowledge. Zull writes that "no one can understand anything if it isn't connected in some way to something they already know" (p. 94). As teachers, we are challenged to look for what students already know about our discipline in order to make connections and build new learning from this point. One way to do this is to ask students to write responses to questions regarding our disciplines so that we don't have to infer their prior knowledge and be proven wrong. A geography professor might ask students to write out responses to the following questions in sentences: Why is Las Vegas more arid than Santa Monica? What causes coastal breezes in the afternoons? Why are the hours of daylight longer in summer and shorter in winter?

Zull (p. 94) sees prior knowledge as a physical thing that is located in the brain. When students have misconceptions about concepts due to their prior knowledge, tangles occur that prevent them from learning the accurate information. And past learning is persistent. We can't correct it by simply telling students that they are in error or by repeating the answer correctly, multiple times, louder. We need to figure out what incorrect connections they have physically in their brain and start from there to untangle.

As teachers, we are challenged to find connections from students' relevant past experiences that may assist in their learning of today's concepts, as well as connections that may be interfering with today's learning. Three main sources for discovering connections include: (a) searching the knowledge base of your discipline and making predictions regarding what students might know or confuse; (b) asking students to share their understanding of concepts so you can determine what they already know, as well as uncover any misconceptions; and (c) asking the students in class who get it to share with those who don't.

Second, new learning is more attainable when we teach initially using concrete examples that our students understand in order to build connections (Zull, 103). Rather than beginning by teaching the abstract principle of supply and demand, the economics professor is wise to begin with an economic story that students can relate to and that embeds the concept of supply and demand. In an algebra class, the professor is encouraged to begin with a concrete situation in which students might need to solve for an unknown variable, rather than starting with the mathematical equation. And a study of cloud types might begin outside, looking to the sky as a storm approaches the campus.

The rationale for building concrete examples first is that we all sense, or perceive, the outside world in a similar, if not identical, fashion--the book on the table is a book; no interpretation needed. Moreover, the benefits are seen in students who connect, understand, and remember better than if they were first asked to memorize disconnected abstractions from our disciplines. This way, it makes sense (pun again intended).

Third, deep learning occurs only when we use the whole brain. This means that just taking in a lecture as sensory input is insufficient for deep learning. College instructors, take note: Because the brain is biologically wired to continue the learning cycle towards planning for action (hypothesizing), it would be wise to make time for students to think, write, and discuss key concepts in class (Zull, p. 200). If we don't, our students' brains will anyway. It may look like daydreaming, portions of our lecture will be missed, but it's what the brain wants. We need to believe that a periodic break in our lecture is time that is well spent and critical to brain-cell growth. After all, she who is reflecting and connecting is growing the dendrites. She who is writing copious notes without thinking is not. Of course our brains can do much more: develop insights, generate abstractions, and hypothesize, as well as test ideas through physical action. Zull explains these brain capabilities, again with delightful stories that he calls episodic memories (p. 80), all the better for "making memories" and engaging the right frontal cortex of the brain.

In the three-page Epilogue (pp. 247-249) Zull "looks back on" (reflects upon?) what he now sees as the purpose of his book: to enrich us by changing our attitudes through an understanding of the biology of learning. Moreover, always practicing what he preaches throughout this book, Zull breaks down these enrichments into a "more concrete form" and I summarize them below:

  • Biology sheds light on why we learn.
  • Biology makes educational theory more real by explaining the physical process that requires the learner to construct her own understanding by building on what she already knows.
  • Biology explains the separateness of teacher and learner and the need for each learner to build her own learning.
  • Biology gives us ideas regarding useful teaching strategies, such as those that build spatial relationships regarding our subjects through images, metaphors, and analogies.
  • Biology helps to clarify our values, such that we respect the individual for her physically determined behavior, and we work with whatever she brings to our classroom.

Do I recommend Zull's book? Let me make it concrete:

This book is a must read for every teacher in the CSU.

Works Cited

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Posted January 21, 2004
Modified February 17, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Cynthia Desrochers.

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